Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
At various stages in his early career Matisse experimented with pictorial elements that would eventually coalesce into the Fauve manner of 1905, those canvases that instigated the first modernist furor of the new century when they were shown at the Salon d'Automne that year. The Corsican landscapes of 1898, and certain still-lifes and exploratory figure paintings executed at the turn of the century contain unmistakable signs of later developments. Few canvases, however, are so proto-Fauve–and none so strikingly prescient–as Nu à la serviette blanche. Standing out from other works of the years 1902-1903, this canvas clearly foreshadows the revolutionary Fauve canvases that followed a couple of years later–indeed, it makes them seem virtually inevitable.
This painting is all the more remarkable because in 1902-1903 Matisse overcame an almost ruinous string of adversities in his private life. Jack Flam has called this early period the "years of struggle" (op. cit., 1986, p. 78), while Alfred H. Barr, Jr. singled out 1902-1903 as Matisse's "dark years" (Matisse: His Art and his Public, New York, 1951, p. 50), in reference to the somber tonalities that he adopted in most of his paintings during this time, in an effort to make them more attractive to buyers and the Salon jury. With the publication of Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse (New York, 1998), we now have a more thorough understanding of the personal and family difficulties that confronted the artist during this period, and how he overcame them through a resolute and unyielding commitment to his art.
In May 1902 the Humbert scandal broke, dominating the headlines then much as the Madoff swindle did in late 2008. Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert had for years leveraged their extensive business dealings against a non-existent legacy, and fled Paris only hours before their fraudulent scheme was uncovered, costing some 11,000 investors their life savings. Armand and Catherine Parayre, the parents of Matisse's wife Amélie, both worked for the Humberts and were implicated in the scandal. When the Humberts were finally detained that December in Madrid, Armand Parayre, then 60 years old, was also arrested and imprisoned for more than a month. Amélie's health suffered and she was forced to close her millinery business, from which the artist's family derived their sole income.
Matisse took on the role of family spokesman and defender. To escape the poisonous atmosphere in Paris, the artist and his family spent the winter of 1902-1903 at the home of his parents in Bohain-en-Vermandois. The situation was no better when they returned to Paris, and in March 1903 Matisse closed his Paris studio at 19, quai de Saint-Michel and returned to Bohain. "The spring of 1903 marked his low point,” Spurling has written. “He wrote to Marquet in March, vividly describing the state of misery and emotional numbness to which insomnia had reduced him, and which he feared might end in total disintegration" (op. cit., 1998, p. 250).
Later that spring Matisse moved to another house in Bohain to escape his parents, who had long complained of his choice of a career and his inability to provide properly for his family. The artist depicted his new studio in L'atelier sous les toits. "Dark" it was–Barr described it "as original in conception as it is disconsolate in atmosphere" (op. cit., 1951, p. 50). In July 1903 Matisse and his family moved to Lesquielles-Saint Germain, some distance away. "My work more or less satisfies me,” he wrote to fellow painter Simon Bussy on 15 July, suggesting that the worst was over. “I am aware of continual real progress, more suppleness of execution than in the earlier studies, and a return to the soft harmonies and close values that will certainly be better received by collectors... The various cares, small and large, more small than large, which life has already given me a good share of, and the responsibility that I've decided courageously to accept, combined with the pittance that our calling brings in, had almost made me decide to quit painting altogether" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., 1986, p. 82).
In mid-August 1903 the Humberts were tried and convicted in Paris. The Parayres were found to have been unwitting and blameless instruments in the Humbert scam. Amélie’s health was slowly improving, and with the hope of re-opening her business and working again in his Paris studio, Matisse returned to the capital in the fall of 1903, accompanied by Marguerite, his eldest child.
Nu à la serviette blanche has been variously ascribed to a date as early as 1901, or as late as 1904. It seems unlikely that Matisse would have undertaken such a provocative subject in these strident colors in conservative Bohain, where he and his work were viewed with suspicion and disdain. This picture was probably done in his Paris studio, before or after his prolonged sojourns in Bohain, either in the summer or fall of 1902, or more likely following the artist's return to Paris in the fall of 1903. In either case, this painting is exceptional among his canvases during this period, for it dispenses altogether with those "soft harmonies" and "close values" that characterize nearly all of the pictures Matisse created in Bohain, and even those following his return to Paris, which may be observed in the masterwork of this period, Carmelina, 1904.
Despite the difference in Matisse’s use of color, in both the latter painting and in Nu à la serviette, the figure and ground have been fully integrated, while in the earlier nudes, which Matisse had treated in a sculptural manner, the elements in the background are only vaguely defined. "The background played an important but subsidiary role in the composition of the Standing Model paintings of 1900-1902,” Flam has observed. “In Carmelina and Standing Nude with Towel [the present painting] of 1903, the surroundings have become psychologically and formally as important as the figure itself... All elements of the painting are given equal emphasis and all parts of the surface are worked with equal intensity. Matisse's work with volume and plane between 1900 and the beginning of 1904 provided the profound understanding of form and space necessary for the extraordinary synthesis of color and drawing that he would achieve between 1904 and 1906" (ibid., 1986, p. 94).
Matisse's understanding of Cézanne informs every aspect of Nu à la serviette blanche. The most prized work in Matisse's small collection was Cézanne's Trois baigneuses, circa 1879-1882 (Rewald, no. 360; gift of Matisse to the Musée de la ville de Paris), which he acquired from Vollard in 1899. Flam noted that "Matisse's use of Cézannian devices helped him to create a more dynamic and fluid pictorial ensemble than he had done earlier and to give increased emphasis to the structural and expressive qualities of paint as such" (ibid., p. 86). "If Cézanne is right, then I am right” Matisse claimed. “And I knew that Cézanne had made no mistake" (quoted in op. cit., 1998, p. 250).
Nu à la serviette blanche represents Matisse in his most radical and uncompromising manner up until this time. This was a period when, "for the time being, to make his painting more attractive,” as Pierre Schneider has pointed out, “he had at all costs to persuade himself that his true temperament and instinct were opposed to experimentation. And this effort was simply unnatural, as everything he painted in the years to come demonstrates: it went against his nature–a nature that, in a few canvases like Nude with White Towel, fought back with a desperate violence, breaking up the planes, setting fire to the background and the outlines–exhausting and bewildering him" (op. cit., p.116). "The essential thing is to spring forth,” Matisse declared, “to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing. The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his own nature; the shock, with the original reaction" (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., 1986, p. 85).
The first owner of Nu à la serviette blanche was Jean Puy, Matisse's close friend and a fellow painter. Together with Albert Marquet, they worked in Henri Manguin's studio during 1899-1900, sharing the expense of hiring models for their initial foray into figure painting. This group constituted the core of the Fauve movement in 1905. Puy possessed independent means, and supported the struggling Matisse by buying his paintings at times when the latter otherwise had little hope of making sales.
[A] Henri Matisse, L'atelier sous les toits, early 1903. The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.
[B] Henri Matisse, Modèle debout, Paris, autumn 1900-spring 1901. Tate Gallery, London.
[C] Henri Matisse, Carmelina (La pose du nu), winter 1903-1904. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
[D] Henri Matisse, Intérieur à Collioure, summer 1905. Private collection.